The evening before my interview with Alexandra Shulman I was re-reading sections of her diary, Inside Vogue, in the bath when to my horror the book slipped through my fingers. Wet pages lay drying in waves on the radiator all night. Yet when I pulled out this ashamedly shabby copy for her to sign after our meeting Alexandra just laughed, she was glad to see it had been properly enjoyed. So many people have interviewed this iconic editor and have commented that she’s down-to-earth and not what you might expect of ‘Vogue’. We talked openly about growing up in London, how the parks become your garden and pockets of the city your own. We talked about clothes, songs and taking a chance on love. As editor of British Vogue for 24 years Alexandra seems almost unnervingly capable and chooses her words with precision. But she listens too, with warmth and humour. This is the Iris interview:
If you were to be on the cover of Vogue, what would you be wearing?
That’s a good question. Laughs. I have no idea. Someone would have to style me. I’d get someone here to style me.
What’s your favourite street in London for shopping?
Chiltern Street I like very much. There’s a Bella Freud, a great boutique called Mouki Mou which stocks lots of thing you don’t see anywhere else. The other day they had beautiful paperweights with flowers inside. I like The Monocle Cafe for coffee. And I still love the Golborne Road and go there all the time.
You seem to have a very steady sense of self. Have you always been self-possessed or did you become that way?
I’m sure I wasn’t confident as a teenager. But I’ve never felt I had to be like other people. I didn’t feel a peer group pressure. I just happen to find getting my hair done, getting my make up done or having a manicure boring activities. There’s always something else I’d like to be doing.
You are asked all the time about body image. What impact do you think social media is having given the gap between reality and the Instagram window is so vast?
I am interested in the Instagram culture – the self-edit one can do. I’m so aware of how selective you can be and I’m a little uncomfortable with that. That’s a new thing for your generation. You can create this whole world that you want to show people in a way that my generation couldn’t.
You say in your book that you got married at two days’ notice. Are you a romantic?
I am a romantic. The man I married and I had been together on-and-off for about seven years. And we’d actually split up. He came round and said to me, look, I’ve booked the registry office on Thursday. Either I wasn’t going to do it or I’d give it a chance. It was very romantic and lovely and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
What did you wear?
A white Ghost dress. In fact, it looked just like a night dress. And a beautiful Dries van Noten embroidered shawl. But I didn’t have my hair done or anything…oh no! I did have my hair done! You know how hairdressers always ask, ‘doing anything special?', well I was thinking ‘yeah actually I’m getting married today.’ But since nobody knew I didn’t feel I could tell that hairdresser or the person washing my hair. I hadn’t told my friends or family!
I’d like to talk a bit about your diary, Inside Vogue which I loved. Did you edit out any embarrassing bits?
I really did not edit out anything embarrassing. I would make notes during the day, details I noticed and then go back and polish up my writing at the weekend. I felt strongly that I had to not remove what I felt and thought even when I was proven wrong further down the line.
You say you take all reviews or comments on your writing personally. How do you cope with criticism?
It depends who is criticising and what they are saying. On Amazon anyone can comment. Someone the other day posted a long review about Inside Vogue and my views on Brexit as a privileged, urban person. This was really interesting. I was fascinated and didn’t take it as a personal criticism at all. Everyone has an Achilles heel; if that’s the bit someone spears then you feel terrible. Other bits you don’t really mind about so much.
You have been editor of Vogue for 24 years. Is there a particular issue that stands out in your mind as the best?
I’m quite pragmatic and feel the main achievement is that there is an issue produced at all!
Is there a book you have read many times over? What is it?
Generally, I don’t re-read books. But I love Joan Didion Play It as It Lays, Nick Hornby High Fidelity and Rosamund Lehmann The Weather in the Streets. Rather tragically I have found that books that I really loved when I read them, like at 15, 16 haven’t survived the re-read at all.
On Desert Island Discs you say that the one book you’d take to the island is The Penguin Book of Love Poetry that your Dad gave you when you were 17. Is there one particular poem you especially love?
You started your career in the music industry. Do you have a favourite song to dance to?
I do dance around a lot on my own. But that’s often to quite random songs. I quite like all the old blues-y favourites like Otis Redding but there’s lots of new music I like too.
Like me, you grew up in London. Is there a bit of the city that you feel is yours?
The parks become a part of your existence. I feel attached to Hyde Park. As a child I would go there every day and now I run there a lot. A lot of London I feel is mine. Huge tracts of it feel like my village. I could be a cab driver.
If you could go back to your 20-something self what advice would you give?
Long pause. Probably worry less. I’m much happier the older I’ve got. I didn’t find being in my twenties a very easy time. I was always worried whether I’d find anybody I’d want to marry, whether I’d have children, whether I’d ever have a home, own a property.
My Mum doesn’t believe in advice.
Interjects She’s right! There is a line in a song that I’ve been trying to remember for weeks and it's driving me mad! But it's sort of like, it doesn’t matter what you say you’re going to do. The only thing that matters is what you do.
Words by Daisy Allsup. The Iris Letter January 2017.